By Eric Auner
Late last month, the White House unveiled a request for $65 billion in additional spending for the war in Afghanistan and other defense programs, on top of the approximately $500 billion in the Pentagon’s base budget. Over $58 billion of that request would fund the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which cover military activities that would have previously fallen under the Bush-era rubric of the war on terror. The rest would go to the State Department.
The OCO request, which is more than $20 billion less than the placeholder amount in the fiscal year 2015 budget request announced last March, represents a transitional point for U.S. defense spending. OCO requests have declined significantly from the $187 billion spent in 2008 as the overall defense budget shrinks and Washington continues to scale down from over a decade of war.
But at the same time, the Obama administration and the Pentagon still see OCO money as necessary. The administration intends to use the OCO budget to fund new initiatives recently unveiled by President Barack Obama, including $5 billion in counterterrorism training missions, announced in his West Point address; $1 billion in increased military deployments to Eastern European allies, announced during his visit to Poland; and $500 million to support moderate “vetted” Syrian rebels, announced after the fall of Mosul to fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The rest of the Pentagon’s OCO request would go to the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon still has a ways to go to pay all of its bills from a stagnant base budget. Proposals to better match means and ends—including retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jet, popularly known as the Warthog, and closing more bases—have been stalled by Congress. And so, as a sign of the times of Beltway brinkmanship and budget crises, the Pentagon continues to rely on OCO to fill the gap.
Russell Rumbaugh, an analyst with the Stimson Center, explains in an email that the 2015 base budget “went a long way to institutionalizing the necessary annual funding,” but adds that there is “still plenty of day-to-day funding still stuck in the war budget.” Personnel costs will likely not be included in OCO after the 2015 budget, he says.
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, meanwhile, told Defense News in late June that the 2015 OCO request includes approximately $30 billion that had been transferred out of the base budget.
But the Obama administration is taking pains to justify the request as necessary for the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said last month that the current request is down 26 percent from last year’s request “as our nation concludes 13 years of war and our mission in Afghanistan transitions to a training, advisory and assistance role post-2014.”
According to the Department of Defense’s Comptroller website, the request assumes a drawdown to 9,800 troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, and a “decrease to normal embassy presence” by the end of 2016.
Reactions from Capitol Hill focused primarily on the proposed funding for Syrian fighters. Even some Republican hawks who have criticized Obama’s Syria policies, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, expressed their support for the measure.
But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, a Republican, criticized how the proposal was unveiled. “The administration delayed this proposal for over four months and now appears to be in a rush to deliver it to the Hill with little detail on how the Department would spend the money.”
“Congress is not a rubber stamp,” he added.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supported the request, including the funds for Syrian fighters. “In light of recent event in Iraq and Syria, this is appropriate spending,” he said.
It would be a shock if Congress didn’t ultimately approve the OCO funding for the Pentagon, Rumbaugh explains. “Not only does the Pentagon ask for it, Congress likes to give it,” he says.
He points out that last year was the first time that Congress approved more OCO funding than the president requested, and “there’s no reason to expect them not to again this year.”
Rumbaugh adds that “nobody has a sense of what the future holds” for OCO after 2015. “There’s still plenty of space” under the administration’s self-imposed cumulative cap of $450 billion through 2021, he says. But those political goals must be reconciled with fundamental military needs. “There’s a tension between demonstrating the war’s over,” Rumbaugh says, and providing a lifeline to the Pentagon. That tension “likely means the question is re-debated, even internally, every year.”
But even if Congress wants to support the troops, and keep politically important programs alive, this is still a tough congressional environment in which to ask for more money. Many on Capitol Hill are likely to agree with the characterization from former White House budget official Gordon Adams: “Free money for DoD. Nearly $60 billion of it.”